Columns

Better leadership

Jul/Aug 09 issue
 

Listening will make you a better leader and that’s all the more true when times are hard. Here’s my take on the skills you need to see your company through a rough patch


1. Be decisive

Your team knows that times are tough and they expect you to make the appropriate decisions. If that means redundancies or making people part-time workers then get on with it. The government’s refusal to acknowledge
the need to cut public services in the face of our debt mountain has lost it
(even more) respect.

I recently took over the chairmanship of a business where one-to-one meetings with the senior management revealed a political situation: reporting lines were unclear and there was simmering resentment over relative salary levels.

Taking some tough decisions that had previously been avoided produced a collective sigh of relief and released a tangible surge of energy. The battle was now being fought outside the company
and not within it.

2. Be positive

Just because things are tough, it’s not the time for heads to go down. That’s a mistake I made at CIA many years ago, when in one disastrous month we lost our two biggest clients and 40 per cent of our business. I was walking around the office with my head down, looking depressed and extremely worried. Luckily one of my directors pulled me aside and told me the damage I was doing to staff morale. It shouldn’t have been necessary to tell me, but fortunately he did.

For that reason, I like a description by football coach Carlos Queiroz, who has twice been a key member of the Manchester United management team. Describing Sir Alex Ferguson, he said: ‘However bad the loss, the next day the boss is in early; he’s always positive and he’s always looking ahead.’

3. Tough Love

Drive them hard, but still be appreciative. It’s easy to use all stick and no carrot in tough times – after all, most people won’t be able to get another job. But unless you enjoy being a bully, this doesn’t seem to be the right way – it doesn’t even seem necessary.

A contemporary of mine, Dennis Holt, built a terrifically successful media agency on the US West Coast. He was incredibly driven: lots of client socialising until late at night, and yet he was first into the office (his car was prominent in the car park from 6am). Despite that, he would regularly walk through the office, a touch here, a handshake there, always acknowledging the time his employees put in.

OK, that was Los Angeles and it wouldn’t be my style, but showing your appreciation is important, bearing in mind how hard you are going to push your whole team.

4. Total Commitment

Forget work/life balance, you need 24/7 focus. People who have their work/life balance right, with their families as the most important thing in their lives, are usually more rounded, nicer people. But in a brutal recession – and that’s what this is – you need the obsessive people who seem never to switch off. You need to stay closer to your client companies and the end consumer than ever before; you need to anticipate the complex changes that happen in markets when habits are constantly changing. You have to watch your competitors like a hawk too. You cannot expect to do all that effectively unless you are 24/7.

5. Listen to your staff
I remember Bill Clinton’s words on leadership: ‘It’s like walking in a cemetery: there are a lot of people beneath you, but no-one is listening.’ Bill Clinton’s powers of oratory are seductive, but is he missing the point? You should be listening to them.

Listening to your staff and being seen to listen is always good for morale, but in a recession this is no mere gesture. The humblest person in the company is nearly always in the front line with a lot of customer contact. The cleaner of the hotel rooms; the most junior waiter who “only” sets up the tables; the accounts clerk…you may now be thinking this is all a bit too folksy, but it’s real. In a company I’ve invested in, the accounts clerk came up to the MD of the company and said she was worried that it was the 8th of the month and the previous month’s invoices hadn’t gone out. For a cash-strapped company, this was dynamite. It was only because this was an accessible, listening boss that he’d learnt he had a major problem.

Too many bosses surround themselves with people who feed them what they think their boss wants to hear. Even worse, your senior team have become so busy pinging emails back and forth to each other that they have no time to visit the front line and see how things really are, like a bunch of First World War generals with “CrackBerries”.

Jack Cohen, the founder of Tesco, had it right when he said, ‘Remember, the most humble person in your organisation is the most important.’